Firelines: Managing firefighter culture
By Dave Balding
By Dave Balding
Expanding the horizons of your fire department and its members is vital, and it always begins with training. There are obvious operational necessities and benefits to training, but training also encompasses a component beyond learning and honing skills in-house. Training events held further afield are fertile ground on which relationships are forged and ideas exchanged. Events such as firefighter competitions and conferences also have many of the same benefits. Camaraderie and firefighter culture flourish here, with many takeaways going back to the home department.
In terms of development, I encourage full yet cautious engagement in electronic media. While screens presents endless valuable training and virtual networking opportunities, they also bring inherent challenges and influence fire department culture. Though electronic media can be a difficult creature to manage, it is intrinsically linked to many aspects of the fire department’s performance.
An increasingly prevalent notion in the electronic arena that I find a little over the top is the “hero” mindset. There is no shortage of material that supports and perpetuates the hero concept. One example among many is the “I Fight What You Fear” messaging. Pride with inflated ego can be contagious and carries the potential to affect culture in the department.
Make no mistake, I am fiercely proud of this profession and its powerfully unique culture. However, I temper that pride with reality – and perhaps a little modesty. Boiled down to its simplest form, fire fighting is all about helping people. A balanced, realistic ethos is vital to the healthy progress of one’s self and the entire organization. I do not consider myself a hero, nor do I attempt to lead or create them. Rather, I strive to be the best firefighter and leader I can and, in turn, create an environment supportive of my firefighters’ growth, aspirations and success.
Courage, not to be confused with heroism, is an essential ingredient for successful firefighters. One of the best definitions of courage I’ve read is, “the willingness to do the right thing in spite of fear.” This applies unilaterally from the newest recruit to the most senior officer in any environment.
Leaders must also be courageous, making tough decisions on the fireground and consistently in the day-to-day operation of their departments. Perpetuating the image of the invincible, almost superhuman firefighter is not doing us any favours. In the past, I had a firefighter tell me he would enter a building despite fire ground orders to the contrary, given certain conditions. The ensuing conversation was probing, revealing and productive. And any of us are at risk for paying too much attention to the frenzy that may drive our egos.
Beware of the “fire fighting is not something I do, it’s something I am” mantra. I identify primarily as a firefighter. It may sound grandiose but fire fighting is much more than a job —it demands and rewards much more. Traits essential to our craft and lifestyle simply cannot get put on a shelf when not engaged in fire service work. I fundamentally believe we do not simply ‘do’ fire fighting, we live it. Can such a vital concept be taken too far? Yes, it can. Balance is key.
Left unbridled, these ways of thinking have potential to influence our culture beyond balanced healthy pride. This is important to consider for a couple of reasons. First, while fire ground operations are primarily driven by training and discipline, they are also undeniably affected by culture. This ‘soft’ yet essential quality has myriad inputs and the foregoing are but a few of them. Second, our culture, how we genuinely think of ourselves and our profession, affects how we market ourselves. Marketing is key as we strive to realistically portray the services we bring to our communities – typically somewhat differently than that portrayed by the entertainment industry. It also affects how another audience sees us: potential new members. The way those that pay attention perceive us is driven in large part by how we perceive ourselves.
Residents that call for our services and fund us through local politicians, along with those we ask to join our ranks, find courageous, intelligent, well-trained firefighters in stable, well-lead and inclusive organizations not only more appealing, but more effective.
Dave Balding has been a member of the fire service since 1985, spending 26 years as a volunteer on Vancouver Island. He is an instructor for the Beyond Hoses & Helmets leadership course and most recently served as fire chief for Golden Fire Rescue. Contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB